Waking up in a bed was surreal. But not as surreal as the hotel breakfast buffet that waited for me downstairs. Biscuits, Grits, Turkey Sausage, Gravy? You know you’re in the south when there’s gravy for breakfast… Of course I decided to get fully involved and grabbed a bran muffin, made myself some turkey biscuit stacks (dipped in gravy) and washed it all down with Cranberry Juice. Bizarre but good, calories be damned.
We returned to the room and arranged/repacked gear, then checked out. Whilst checking out we met some other thru-hikers: “GG”, “VDub”, “Lost and Found” and “Hangman”. GG was a Golden Girls fan, Lost and Found kept finding items on the trail and heroically returning them to their owners, VDub was carrying whiskey (I think from Virginia) everywhere she went and Hangman was a pro bear bag hanger. Charlotte, Tyler and I didn’t have trail names yet and enjoyed hearing the mythology behind each of these.
After leaving we headed to the coin laundry and washed our filthy gear, then we headed to the outfitters. Tyler’s tent (which replaced one the TSA originally “lost” when he traveled to the trail from Texas) was busted from high winds, so he purchased a new one – a Big Agnes UL2 (popular tent on the trail). I grabbed a lightweight thermal beanie and gloves as I’d heard it would be a cold one that evening.
Next stop was Taco Bell – we’d agreed to go as I’d never been and it’s a right of passage for anyone visiting the states. I had an XXL grilled stuffed burrito with steak and two chicken and cheese quesadillas. Super tasty but I felt incredibly bloated afterwards! There was another hiker in there we chatted with – a girl called “Her Dudeness” who had previously attemptef a Southbound AT hike but had to pull out with a foot fracture.
Last stop was the supermarket – Ingles, where we restocked our food bags. Key purchases for me – babybels, chocolate raisins, jerky and tortillas. Afterwards we called a shuttle to take us back to the trail at Unicoi. The weather forecast was horrendous and our driver gave us his two cents as he shuttled us:
“What the F*** are y’all doing heading out on the trail today?”
As Thru-Hikers, we need to keep moving or Mt. Katahdin in Maine will become impossible to reach. Town was full and we didn’t want to spend any more money whilst stalling on our hiking goals. However, in retrospect we were walking straight into the nastiest storm yet.
Hiking out of Unicoi at about 6pm, there was a noticeable chill in the air. It was a tough, steep hike up Rocky Mountain (the first “P” to the Binoculars on the elevation map below. As we got higher, we hiked into snow! We pushed through the snowy trail to the top of Rocky and carefully navigated a rocky, slippery descent. Charlotte was struggling – she was having trouble with her knees and was worried about the future of her hike.
The second “P” was Indian Grave Gap. Beth and Dan were camped there and we said hello – but wanted to go a little further as it felt like we had been hiking for about five minutes! It was starting to get really cold now though.
We pushed on to the Cheese Factory site (there used to be a Cheese Factory there, right on the side of a mountain!) about four miles from Unicoi. It was deathly cold and the wind was howling with some very strong gusts. Tyler and I set up our tents as quickly as possible and ensured we were layered up appropriately (all the layers). Charlotte was in a bad way and really struggling. I made her a hot chocolate and got her to drink it all quickly. She’d got so cold on the hike up and setting up her hammock that I was genuinely concerned – temperature was well below zero now with severe wind chill. She was shaking uncontrollably and pre-hypothermic.
Tyler and I were worried that either Charlotte’s gear wasn’t warm enough for the severe conditions or that she was now so cold that if she got into trouble it would be dangerous, so we agreed one of us should try and keep an eye on her. I suggested she stay in my tent (I have a two man) and she accepted and moved her stuff over.
I’ve talked to plenty of thru hikers since and we all agree that night was especially severe, non-trail experience included. The freezing wind howled ferociously all night and gusts threatened to knock even the sturdiest tents over. I used my body to brace against the tent support poles and support them in the wind. I cinched my sleeping bag quilt around me super tight, over my head. Using my buff and hat, I also rigged my portable charger to fast charge my phone, with both tucked between my leggings and shorts to use as heat pads. I barely slept all night but was confident that my gear would protect us. It was uncomfortable – but the situation was under control and wouldn’t be dangerous as long as I was careful.
We’d been lucky with weather until now and this storm was part and parcel of a nomadic life in the mountains. Despite it all, I still felt lucky to be out here – all part of life’s rich tapestry!